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Vacation plans grounded by airline pilots' sickout; Stranded travelers want someone to pay


Valentine's Day for Laura and Brent Gurney wasn't the romantic walk on a Caribbean beach they thought it would be, but a frustrating journey into the middle of the American Airlines pilot sickout.

When no one showed up to pilot their plane from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to San Juan, Puerto Rico, yesterday, the Columbia couple had to cancel their week of vacation -- the first one away from the kids in four years -- and give up a $1,000 hotel deposit.

Laura Gurney was in tears yesterday morning.

"It is just the helplessness that you feel," Gurney said. "There is no one that cares."

But by afternoon, she was angry, ready to find someone to scream at.

The Gurneys were just two of hundreds of thousands of travelers across the nation who have been left at the gate by the nation's second-largest airline in a weeklong action by pilots calling in sick.

Locally, several couples who had planned getaways said baby-sitting arrangements, hotel reservations and cruise line tickets were disrupted by the sickout.

More than half of American Airlines' "sick" pilots returned to work yesterday after a federal judge held the Allied Pilots Association and two top board members in contempt. The judge said he would decide Wednesday how much to levy in fines, although he promised they would be substantial. He required the union to place $10 million with the court and for union President Rich LaVoy and Vice President Brian Mayhew to remit a total of $15,000.

Only seven American Airlines flights take off and land at BWI each day, but over the past week, hundreds of travelers locally have been affected by the carrier's flight cancellations.

Stranded on Tortola

Some, like the Gurneys, never left for their destinations. Others have yet to make it home.

Bernice Williams of Towson said her five daughters and a granddaughter were supposed to be back in town Saturday, but called to say they were stranded on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and wouldn't be back until tomorrow.

Williams said they were not pleased.

"They said they were pretty upset. They were dying to get home. They had been there long enough. They had had it," she said. Several of them have husbands and children who were anxiously awaiting their return, she said.

What angered some travelers was not just the loss of a vacation but the loss of deposits on hotels and cruise lines.

The Gurneys don't believe the hotel will refund their deposit and said they hoped the federal judge would make the union put some of its $10 million fine aside to pay back consumers.

"It seems the consumer should come first because we have no control over the situation," Mrs. Gurney said.

'I am mad'

Geoffrey Stuart of Bryn Mawr, Pa., couldn't agree more. He had to give up a cruise with his wife on Friday when the flight from Philadelphia to San Juan, Puerto Rico, was canceled and they lost more than $1,000 in a deposit on the cruise.

"I am mad," he said.

Stuart threatened to take thousands of dollars of business each year to another airline if American did not make a "very large gesture" in the form of a reimbursement. "I just will not fly them," he said.

Both the Gurneys and the Stuarts tried finding alternative flights and couldn't.

In addition, Stuart said, it appears that even those people who bought travel insurance will not be reimbursed because the union action was not a strike but a sickout.

It was not clear yesterday what, if any, reimbursement American might offer to customers who lost hotel and cruise deposits.

"I can't answer that right now," said Sonja Whitemon, a spokeswoman for the airline in Fort Worth, Texas. She said she knew of no similar situation in the past where an airline had reimbursed money to customers because of pilots calling in sick.

Pilots returning

But she said late yesterday afternoon that hundreds of pilots had come back to work, with all but 900 to 1,000 of American's 9,600 pilots off the sick list.

"We hope to be nearly 100 percent by Tuesday," Whitemon said. Until then, "we anticipate we will have a few hundred cancellations."

Whitemon said that anyone with an American ticket should call the airline at 800-433-7300 or talk to their travel agent before going to the airport.

Some travelers found they still had reason to hope when they showed up at BWI to verify travel plans to Puerto Rico. Mark and Jeanne Phillips and Bob and Lisa Ernharth, all of Greencastle, Pa., planned their trip a year ago.

For days they had tried unsuccessfully to make alternative arrangements on another airline. "We are not real confident it will go, so far," Bob Ernharth said of the American flight.

But moments later an airline ticket agent said she believed their flight would leave this morning shortly after 7.

Sun staff writer Dail Willis, research librarian Andrea Wilson and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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